This article contains some spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home.
It is no secret that Spider-Man has one of the best rogues’ gallery in all of comics. In fact, the only superhero whose villains rival the Web-Head’s resides over in Gotham City. So it’s par for the course that the new bad guys of Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man movies are among the most exceptional of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While there have been many bigger foes with designs on destroying the world and/or universe (too many, really), Michael Keaton’s Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home have done a solid job of providing immediate, personal threats to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker.
But beyond being capably played by great actors and looking pretty nifty on their own—with Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio being a special kind of achievement given how funky that Steve Ditko-inspired fishbowl helmet appears in comics—each of these baddies offers something more refreshing to the MCU than a new dose of villainy; they give a sense of scale, adding a bumpy texture to Marvel Studios’ often glossy sheen.
Whereas most of the superhero franchises that comprise the MCU bask in the power fantasy of superheroes as the new celebrities, Vulture and Mysterio are the everymen; the dirt beneath the MCU’s fingernails. They also, along with the rest of Tom Holland’s two solo Spider-Man movies, do a better job than perhaps any Marvel Studios production since the earliest days of reminding you what it’s like being a regular shmuck living day-to-day in a world where aliens call themselves gods and fly around with bright red capes. For at his best, Peter Parker is your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, the one who’s “low to the ground” to quote Spider-Man: Homecoming. And in these movies’ best moments, they prove it one small-time crook at a time.
Like the rest of the supporting cast in the MCU Spider-Man films, Keaton’s Adrian Toomes and Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck are low on the totem pole in a franchise defined by characters who travel to space, including whenever Spider-Man is awkwardly shoehorned into an Avengers movie. By contrast, Keaton’s Toomes is introduced in Spider-Man: Homecoming as a construction contractor who gets stiffed by Stark Industries and the federal government for the clean-up operation in Manhattan’s Midtown area after the Avengers and some aliens wrecked it. Despite having a city contract that he bought extra trucks for, Stark’s white collars have no problem leaving Toomes’ blue one out to dry.
As a consequence, Toomes becomes a criminal, selling the alien tech he salvaged before getting shown the door. When much later in the picture Peter Parker learns the father of his girlfriend is the winged thief who calls himself the Vulture, he asks how someone could do something like this to their daughter. “I’m not doing anything to her, Pete, I’m doing this for her,” Vulture responds. “How do you think your buddy Stark paid for that tower or any of his little toys? Those people up there, the rich and powerful, they do whatever they want. Guys like us, you and me, they don’t care about us. We build their roads and we fight all their wars and everything, but they don’t care about us.”
With Marvel Studios keenly observing how Peter Parker works best as the everyman superhero (or every boy as they seem to want him to stay in high school in perpetuity), the company likewise has kept his villains far more grounded than the generic ones chasing magical stones and cubes. Keaton’s Vulture only cares about his family, and then makes Spider-Man a target because this dumb kid is too young to realize he’s defending a status quo that leaves people on the bottom.
While not quite as subversive, Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck expands on this by turning out to be one of the many faceless scientists at Stark Industries who works on Tony Stark’s multi-billion-dollar ideas and sees none of the rewards for it. The holographic system Tony introduces in Captain America: Civil War turned out to be Beck’s passion project, and Tony swooped in and put his name on it and took all the credit. While it is also true that Beck is a narcissistic psychopath who probably shouldn’t have been in any position of authority, the film nevertheless makes a strong case that the rosy vision of the Avengers just being spectacular is only that… a vision. And one as unrealistic as Mysterio’s illusions. If you are going to build this world beyond surface level, there will be a bottom to a universe that places superheroes at the top.
There is likewise a meta-textual critique of the Marvel Studios films spoken with glee by Gyllenhaal. Over the last decade, Gyllenhaal has flirted time and again with superhero movies—having been considered to play both Spider-Man and even Batman in a previous decade—but he never actually did anything so straightforward. He’s instead become a compellingly quirky character actor with movie star good looks. His recent triumvirate of creeps in Nightcrawler, Okja, and even the daft Velvet Buzzsaw is a showcase for his ability to play unhinged figures in a range between the subtle and the bigger-than-a-Mad-Titan.
Yet most people who buy a ticket for Spider-Man: Far From Home have never seen any of those films. As Mysterio whines, “You can’t get anything done in this world anymore unless you’re wearing a cape.” Mysterio is a bizarre opportunity for a character (played by a magnificent character actor in the world’s biggest commercial franchise) to bemoan how Marvel Studios has sucked all the oxygen out of moviegoing. If you want a big audience to see the goods, you better put on that damn cape and shoot some CGI smoke out of your fists. Maybe a fishbowl too if your beef is with Marvel Studios itself.
The wonderful thing about these villains is they’re correct: Adrian Toomes did get stepped on by capitalistic vultures and an easily lobbied government, and mass audiences will stay away from creative genius unless it’s in the MCU and spouting nonsense about “elementals” and a “multi-verse.” The movie makes them clearly the bad guys because they’re willing to kill over this, but they’re also giving Pete a “low to the ground” vantage of his other Avengers buddies who spend their time lifting robot-made continents into the sky or fighting over an enchanted glove that can incredulously resurrect the dead. Even though the modern Spider-Man movies are flat out comedies—more so than even the fairly goofy yet angst-ridden Sam Raimi era—they also keep their villains and heroes squarely planted with their webs at street level.
Intriguingly, Spider-Man: Far From Home also shows a willingness to expand on this beyond heavies. As with its predecessor, and the Raimi movies before it, the entire supporting cast is comprised of normal teenagers and parental figures. Some of them are evil authority proxies like the Vulture, but most of them are as hapless as his science teachers who take him on a school field trip or his best buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon). In the first movie, Ned’s life revolved around Peter’s superpowers like every other non-superpowered human in the MCU. But instead of being sidelined or phased out in the sequel like most of the Phase One supporting casts, we’ve doubled down on Ned and spent time on his semi-charmed love life with Betty Brant (Angourie Rice). This adds some minor but welcome depth to the human level of the Marvel Universe, as opposed to removing it, as has been the typical case.
This is further compounded by MJ (Zendaya) figuring out Peter Parker is Spider-Man on her own. This, for the record, is accurate to the comics where Mary Jane Watson also didn’t need to be told Pete was lying to her, but in the films, it is additionally charming because she is not another romantic interest awed by the male hero’s greatness; Zendaya’s MJ has the boy figured out.
By zeroing in on Peter’s ordinariness, as opposed to what makes him extraordinary, the MCU MJ does what all the best versions of her and his supporting cast have always done: kept Spider-Man grounded in some semblance of normalcy and humanity. Given we are now in a world where one-half of all existence was “blipped” in and out of death, having that human touch is what always makes Spider-Man, and his villains and friends alike, truly amazing.